- 43 million Americans hold $1.6 trillion in outstanding federal student debt.
- Millennials hold the most student debt, with an average balance of about $35,000 per person.
Federal student debt is a $1.6 trillion problem for over 43 million Americans, and now that payments have started back up again, it’s hitting some borrowers especially hard.
Take Helena, a 58-year-old borrower with $145,000 in student debt who previously had to sell items on eBay to afford her payments. “But as much as I would pay, it would get nowhere because the interest kept growing,” she previously told Insider.
It’s an issue that’s impacting borrowers of all ages. While this past October marked the first time since 2020 that recent college graduates had to make a student-loan payment due to the over three-year pandemic pause, some older borrowers have been dealing with the burden for decades — and wish they would benefit from President Joe Biden’s targeted relief measures.
“Everybody I talk to says, ‘Yeah, older people should have their debt forgiven, too,'” Theresa Teders, a 69-year-old borrower, previously told Insider. “But that’s never expressed, and if it’s not expressed, how does the government and federal lawmakers know that we care out here?”
Last year, Biden announced up to $20,000 in student-debt relief for borrowers making under $125,000 a year, but the Supreme Court struck down the plan in June following conservative challenges. The Education Department is attempting a new route for relief using the Higher Education Act of 1965, and it’s in the process of determining which borrowers will qualify for this next round.
While borrowers across all ages and demographics are dealing with unique challenges to student-loan repayment, here’s what recent data say makes up the typical American borrower.
The average student-debt load for borrowers is around $35,000
A recent TransUnion study using its consumer credit database found that the average American borrower has about $35,000 in student debt. That amount varies by generation: the average Gen Z borrower holds $24,472 in student debt, the average millennial holds $42,637 in student debt, and the average Gen Xer holds $48,733 in student debt, according to TransUnion.
Interest capitalization, in which unpaid interest gets tacked onto a borrower’s principal balance, could contribute to the higher amounts older generations hold.
Women hold more student debt than men
Women hold about two-thirds of the US student-loan portfolio — about $929 billion — according to a 2021 report from the American Association of University Women.
Upon graduation, women owe on average about $22,000 in student debt, compared to the $18,880 men owe. That number increases when considering race: Black women graduate with an average of $37,558 in student debt.
“Women take about two years longer than men to repay student loans,” the report said. “From the moment women graduate from college, most face a gender pay gap — which widens as they age. This makes it even harder to pay off their larger share of student debt.”
Millennials hold the most student debt right now
According to the latest data from Federal Student Aid for the third quarter of 2023, 14.8 million student-loan borrowers aged 25 to 34 — older Gen Zers and young millennials — hold $483 billion outstanding dollars in student debt, and 12.2 million borrowers aged 35 to 49 — older millennials and younger Gen Xers — hold $534 billion outstanding dollars in student debt.
Meanwhile, 6.8 million Gen Z borrowers 24 and under owe $97 billion in student debt, 5 million Gen X and younger boomer borrowers aged 50 to 61 owe $238 billion in student debt, and 1.7 million boomer borrowers 62 and older owe $82 billion in student debt, per FSA.
Most borrowers want debt relief
According to an Ipsos poll conducted in April with a sample of 1,029 adults 18 and older — 399 of which have student loans — 83% of the respondents with loans said they supported Biden’s first attempt at broad student-loan forgiveness of up to $20,000, with an income threshold.
When it comes to the over three-year student-loan payment pause that ended in October, 55% of borrowers in the survey said the pause has improved their mental health. Meanwhile, half of borrowers said they were able to save money during the pause that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to, and 53% of borrowers believed the pause was an economic stimulus.
Support for broad debt relief is also fairly consistent across generations. A Morning Consult and Politico poll in June 2022, right before Biden’s first debt relief plan was announced, found that of 2,000 registered voters, 65% of respondents aged 18 to 34 supported $10,000 in debt relief, with 61% of respondents aged 35 to 44 feeling the same.
Currently, the Education Department is working with a group of negotiators to craft its new plan for student-debt relief. While it has not yet finalized the draft text of the relief, it has outlined four groups of borrowers it’s seeking to prioritize for this next round — and borrowers now have to wait and see if they qualify for a reduction to their balances in the coming year.